Shaun cleans up his act

His name was once a byword for drug-fuelled rock ’n’ roll living but now Shaun Ryder has cleaned up his act – and this time it looks like he means it. Keiron Pim spoke to Happy Mondays’ frontman ahead of their gig in Norwich.

There was a time not so long ago when the prospect of te Happy Mondays recording new music, let alone sustaining a national tour, seemed remote.

It wasn't so much a matter of creative difficulties as of the band being overwhelmed by the problems that always dogged them - not least a range of almost intractable legal issues but, more notoriously, Shaun Ryder's drug-addiction.

That the legendary pioneers of the 'Madchester' scene are back on the road, taking in Norwich on Monday, with a new album to promote is pretty remarkable in itself. It has a lot to do with the fact that, for the first time in 30-odd years, Shaun has shed his dependence on heroin and cocaine and he sounds on good form.

“To me it's just a natural thing really, in my world,” he says. “When you're young and creative you go through a load of stuff. I'm lucky enough not to have OD'd or whatever. You grow up and get bored and move on.”

Which is a typically no-nonsense way of glossing over a long and traumatic struggle to wean himself off addiction, but the nub of it is that at the age of 45 Shaun has decided it is time to clean up his act. Actually it emerges that he decided to do so about 15 years ago, but these things take time; for a long while he was using the heroin substitute methadone without getting round to abandoning his heroin habit. Now he is looking trim, with a new set of shiny white teeth and a fixation on exercise rather than drugs.

The result is that for the first time he is taking to the stage without being off his head. He has been quoted as saying that this “frightens me to death”.

Most Read

“What was going on there,” he explains, “was that the warm-up gigs we've been doing for the last couple of months have been real rock 'n' roll - we've been playing anything from 600 people to 2,000 people, and I haven't done that sort of thing in a long time.

“The sort of shows we've been [used to] doing are sort of cabaret, playing all the hits, playing the whole back catalogue to 20,000 people, and that's not really real. If you walk out on stage somewhere like the [Manchester] Evening News Arena where theresomething like 20,000 people there, it all showbizzy. That didn't really frighten me at all.

“But when you go out in smaller venues and go and rock 'n' roll again, where somebody stood at the front of the audience can touch your crutch, it freaks you out a bit! It brings it back down to where you started.”

Where they started was Salford, Manchester, in the early 1980s. The original band comprised Shaun on lead vocals, his brother Paul on bass, lead guitarist Mark Day, keyboardist Paul Davis and drummer Gary Whelan. The addition of Mark Berry, better known as Bez, on dancing and maraca-shaking duties completed their classic line-up. Shaun, Gary and Bez (last seen winning Celebrity Big Brother in 2005) are the only survivors in the current incarnation - Paul swore never to work with his brother again after a bust-up in 2000, and the others have left the music business.

The first album came in 1987, the snappily-titled Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), and it was followed by Bummed, the highly-acclaimed Pills'n'Thrills and Bellyaches, and the less successful Yes Please!, which was recorded in 1992 at reggae singer Eddy Grant's studio in Barbados. After that they split up - 1999 saw a brief, ill-fated reunion - but in 2004 they decided to give it another go. The new album, Uncle Dysfunktional, only came out this summer but Shaun insists that had nothing to do with his creativity drying up.

“I could say [affects posh accent]: 'It's very hard to write songs, it's a long drawn-out process, a lot of thought goes into it', but that's all bollocks. I just find it really easy to write songs. I'm not political, I write what I think are pop songs, sort of black comedy cartoon-based pop songs with hopefully a lot of hidden meanings which people will find funny, which is great for me to keep me on my toes. That's it really, I can't be doing with the arty side because it's not that difficult!

“We had the album in the can for about 12 months before we actually released it. We recorded it really quickly, it took me about three hours to write all the songs.”

Throughout the course of Happy Mondays' often shambolic existence they have attracted more myths and rumours than most bands. How about the story that Shaun once poisoned 3,000 pigeons by feeding them rocks of crack cocaine?

“It's poetic licence - the pigeon-poisoning thing came about when I was about 15 years old in 1978, so crack cocaine hadn't even entered the dictionary back then. But me and a pal did walk around Manchester putting rat poison in bread, because I really didn't like pigeons. I wanted to sit down and eat my chicken without some rats with wings stealing it off me.”

Or the story that at the peak of the Mondays' fame Bez's father, a policeman, still had no idea who his son was?

“His dad knew exactly - in fact it wasn't until Bez got in a band that his dad started speaking to him. That just shows how Bez was before - his dad thought that being in a band was quite good!”

What about the one where he stripped bare Eddy Grant's recording studio and sold the contents to fuel his 30-rock-a-day crack cocaine habit?

“Unfortunately probably most of that was true. You land on an island where a crack cocaine stone costs you about a pound and you're like a kid in a sweetshop.”

The drugs anecdotes and mythology would have soon been forgotten were it not for the band's musical foundation. The Happy Mondays were the soundtrack to a generation, combining shuffling dance beats with loping rock riffs topped off by Shaun's leering Mancunian vocals. The lyrics were witty, often surreal and brooding with menace - no one knew exactly what he meant when he sneered “you're twisting my melon man” in Step On, but at the same time everyone understood him. That song and other classics such as Kinky Afro and Loose Fit are likely to feature alongside songs from the new album when the band plays here, the mention of which prompts this connection in the Ryder brain: “Norwich? The Sale of the Century? With Nicholas Parsons? Oh aye, yeah…”

Television seems to occupy quite a large part of his drug-free life and he admits to being “boring” now.

“I come back home from doing shows and I sit and watch the Discovery Channel. When I was a kid I used to read Keith Richard interviews, how he didn't listen to music anymore, and I used to think 'that's so sad', but I understand it now.”

While Shaun is now living this apparently sedate life in Glossop, on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire, Bez is still the same as ever. Until recently they lived next door to each other but that wasn't conducive to keeping Shaun healthy.

“Bez is still Bez, I met him when he was 19 years old and he's still exactly the same. He certainly doesn't hide anything - what you see is what you get. I couldn't live next door to Bez for ever, like I say he's still 19.”

As for Bez, he has been quoted recently as reckoning that Shaun is in the best form of his life.

“Well that's very nice of Bez,” he laughs.

“I'm sure that at 28 or 38 I thought I was in great form. At the end of the day I've always had pride in myself, in working with different people and trying to get something different out.”

t Happy Mondays play UEA, Norwich, on Monday. Tickets cost £25. Call UEA box office on 01603 508050. The album, Uncle Dysfunktional, is out now.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter